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Nature Calms the Mind—Even in Photos

The benefit may be greatest for worriers.

When Marsha Jacobson, a business consultant, agreed to a gig that would last over a year, she was assigned an interior office—not a cubicle, but a room with no windows at all.

She worried that the room would be dispiriting. So she pulled out her own nature photos from trips to India, Japan and Vietnam, blew them up to poster size, found inexpensive frames and filled up the walls.

It worked.

Vovan / Shutterstock
Source: Vovan / Shutterstock

To stay focused, we need to give our minds a rest periodically even during a workday. It turns out that natural environments—and even photos of nature—provide a unique kind of rest. They allow you to relax your attention but also keep other parts of your mind engaged, in beneficial ways. As the authors explain in one key study, they provide “softly fascinating stimulation that captures bottom-up involuntary attention mechanisms.”

This is especially important if you have trouble stopping repetitive worry. Psychologists call brooding “rumination,” the same word we use for cows chewing their cud over and over. You’re ruminating when you hash over the details of a cryptic email repeatedly without reaching insights. You may think you’re problem-solving, but too often you end up thinking, “What’s wrong with me?”—and no answer emerges. Rumination is more common among women—men are more likely to distract themselves—and may be why women are more prone to depression. Rumination also plays a role in anxiety, binge eating and binge drinking, among other problems.

Rumination may be linked to more activity in a portion of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex, especially when you’re not engaged in a mental task.

A growing body of research, still with mixed results, has explored the idea that nature brings serenity. We do know that exercising adds to the benefit, even if it's only walking. In one study, scientists gave volunteers tests of their attentiveness and mood before and after a 50-minute walk through a leafy area at Stanford, which maintains a huge campus. After their dose of greenery, the volunteers were less anxious and more focused. Another group took a walk beside a busy multi-lane highway in Palo Alto and didn’t emerge nearly as refreshed.

The same team followed up by scanning the brains of volunteers before and after a 90-minute walk. This time, they aimed to pin down the effect of a walk in a green environment on rumination.

The team found that volunteers who took a 90 minute walk on quiet, tree-lined paths had less blood flow in the subgenual prefrontal cortex afterwards—and also seemed happier in their answers on questionaires. The results weren’t huge, but significant and better than the measurements among a group that walked along the highway.

For the sake of the study, the volunteers were instructed not to listen to music or bring friends. But of course if music or companionship helps your own mood, as it does for many, don’t hesitate.

Other research has found a link between living in a greener area and lower blood pressure.

Greenery seems to be good for human beings whether or not they ruminate. One 2015 study based on data from Toronto concluded that:

... having 10 more trees in a city block, on average, improves health perception in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $10,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $10,000 higher median income or being 7 years younger. We also find that having 11 more trees in a city block, on average, decreases cardio-metabolic conditions in ways comparable to an increase in annual personal income of $20,000 and moving to a neighborhood with $20,000 higher median income or being 1.4 years younger.

So should you move to get more of those trees? Maybe. A British study tracking around six hundred people who moved to a greener area found that they were happier (according to answers on questionaires) in each of the next three years post-move. A comparison group of people who moved to less green areas had a plunge in mood in the year preceding the mood but returned to baseline afterwards.

If you’re a ruminator, please don’t begin worrying about why you’re a ruminator. Instead, take a walk in the most natural setting you can reach or look at nature photos. I personally have a photo of an owl on my desktop and made sure to live within a block of a park on a tree-lined street.

A longer version of this story appears on Your Care Everywhere.

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